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F.ood & H.ealth : B.iological A.gents Last Updated: Nov 12th, 2006 - 20:38:00

Has Asia eliminated bird flu?
By Kathy Jones
May 14, 2006, 14:56

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May 14, ( - Even as the deadly H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus is devastating flocks in Europe and Africa, the Asian countries such as Vietnam and Thailand, where the disease originated, have remained relatively calm. The deadly march of the avian flu virus had triggered fears of flu p andemic, but these fears have not materialized till now.

Dr. David Nabarro, chief pandemic flu coordinator for the United Nations was full of praise for the way Asia has handled a difficult crisis. He singled out Thailand and Vietnam for the way the governments have responded to the crisis.

"These are two countries where there has been very strong political leadership, excellent work by government officials, and an intensive engagement of people at community level," he said. "They show that with the right level of engagement, we can reduce the threats posed by bird flu, and I'd like to see the same energy carried through to fruition in other countries as well."

Vietnam where almost 50 percent of the initial cases were reported has not reported a single human case or an outbreak of flu in poultry this year. Thailand, the second-hardest-hit nation has also not seen a human case for over a year and a poultry outbreak for over six months.

These signs are being interpreted very positively in health circles and are a welcome relief to one and all. Another break has been the fact that belying expectations, birds making the spring migration north from Africa have not brought the bird flu virus into Europe.

However, officials say it is too early to declare a win since the virus is till lurking in Myanmar and Indonesia where the WHO is even now investigating the suspected bird flu cases in eight people in a large family. Four of these infections have been fatal.

But the fact that aggressive measures like "killing infected chickens, inoculating healthy ones, protecting domestic flocks and educating farmers" can successfully contain any bird flu outbreak is proof enough that the battle can be won, reports The New York Times.

Dr. Nabarro was "cautious in interpreting these shifts in patterns" since very little is known about how the disease spreads or if the current situation was a lull before the storm. Other officials concurred with his views. "To say the disease is 'wiped out' there is probably too strong, too positive," said Dr. Wantanee Kalpravidh, chief of flu surveillance in Southeast Asia for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, which fights animal diseases.

She added that although Thailand and Vietnam have reported success, they are still on the lookout for the virus, which may reappear anytime. Dr Nabarro pointed out that the two countries had adopted different ways to fight the disease. In Vietnam, vaccination of the poultry was undertaken on a massive scale and all its 220 million chickens were vaccinated last summer.

Thailand with its large poultry export industry could not afford a vaccination program since it would have led to a widespread ban on its exports. It resorted to culling instead and compensated farmer who lost their poultry stock. Finally, Thailand has also deputized a volunteer in every village to report sick chickens.

Dr Nabarro praised the Thai strategy of vaccinating fighting cocks, which could bring in thousands of dollars. These fighter cocks are then given passports along with their vaccination records allowing them to travel freely.

Thailand and Vietnam also did not hold back on the anti-v iral dr ug T amiflu supplies. These supplies were sent to even the smallest regional hospitals and health workers were ordered to begin treating suspected cases even without confirmatory diagnosis, according to Dr. Klaus Stöhr, a flu specialist at the World Health Organization.

Another possible success case is China, although officials are wont to view it with caution since it concealed the S ARS virus cases. However, Dr Nabarro was confident that Chinese Agriculture Ministry has lived up to its pledge of vaccinating all domestic poultry. He added that he recently met a high-ranking official "who made it clear that they are absolutely determined to get the fullest possible cooperation from provincial authorities."

Even the reported human cases in China have been low over the last two years. This year China reported only 10 cases as compared to 8 last year. "We are hopeful that China has turned the corner," Dr. Nabarro said. But the situation in Cambodia and Laos remained a bit vague, as no poultry outbreaks have been reported, but some officials say this did happen without coming to their notice.

"Tomorrow, the whole thing could change again," Dr. Nabarro, said. "We need to be on the alert at all times."

Meanwhile, a Dutch environmental group said Thursday that fears of the H5N1 bird flu migrating to flocks of wild birds have not happened so far. Scientists from Wetlands International tested 5,000 wild birds in countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Senegal, Malawi and Kenya, but have failed to find the virus.

The bird flu virus first surfaced in Asia in 1997. Since then it has spread rapidly across Asia and Europe as well as Africa. Till now, the virus has only been transmitted after close contact with infected birds and coming in contact with saliva, nasal secretions, and feces.

According to World Health Organization, 115 humans have so far fallen a victim to highly pathogenic bird flu. Although most deaths have occurred in Asia, the majority of them reported this year have occurred in Turkey. Close contact with poultry is a must for human infection.

Experts fear that if the virus mutates to a form that is easily transmissible between humans, it could trigger a worldwide pandemic and claim millions of lives. Now that Vietnam and Thailand have kept bird flu in check, the threat of p andemic flu may not come any time soon.

© 2004-2005 by unless otherwise specified

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